Beach volleyball: Olympic Games’ ultimate party a joyless affair amid 12,000 empty seats

It was all very nightclub-just-after-the-doors-open for the Olympic Games’ beach volleyball tournament
Beach volleyball: Olympic Games’ ultimate party a joyless affair amid 12,000 empty seats

Megumi Murakami, of Japan, dives for the ball during a women's beach volleyball match against Germany. (AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris)

It’s being called The Quiet Games but don’t think this Olympics will pass without a soundtrack.

This is high season for cicadas. Think small insects that look a bit like a termite. They are as intrinsic to a Japanese summer, and to this global sporting event, as the vuvuzela was to the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.

Not nearly as annoying, in fairness, but then that’s no great achievement.

They sing by contracting internal tymbal muscles which, we’re told, causes the membranes to buckle inwards and produce their unique sound. Every time a rib buckles it makes a click and every cicada repeats this action somewhere between 300 and 400 times per second. And there are thousands of these bugs within earshot at outdoor venues.

The only other sounds to be heard at Shiokaze Park down by Tokyo Bay as the beach volleyball tournament punched in for its fourth of 15 days was a tannoy that pumped out the usual inane music and a venue commentator whose breathless response to the action fell on 12,000 empty seats and a cadre of impassive volunteers and media.

There must have been 30 people on the sand with the four athletes joined by a small army of officials, ball boys and girls along with camera crews. If there was twice that number dotted around the rest of the arena, then that was it. We’ve become accustomed to empty arenas but this was beach volleyball, the Games’ ultimate party, and it was joyless.

It felt all sorts of wrong.

The event was introduced to the Olympics on a test basis for Barcelona in 1992 and ushered quickly onto the bill for Atlanta four years later. That was reportedly at the behest of American TV network NBC. They looked at the combination of cool beach culture, lithe bodies, and athletic prowess, and saw an abundance of dollar signs. They were spot on.

The event caught on quickly. By 2004, it was only second in viewing figures to the athletics. Come 2012 in London, when it was held in the iconic surrounds of Horse Guards Parade in the city’s centre, it was the most in-demand and expensive show in town with 425,000 people taking in the men’s and women’s tournaments.

It is, in a way, the poster child for the Olympic movement’s drive to modernise its product and make it more attractive to a youthful, ‘urban’ audience. The path-finder for a programme that this time around has introduced new sports in baseball/softball, karate, skateboard, sports climbing, and surfing. It’s a trend that inevitably attracts scorn.

“Going down to the pub is not yet an Olympic sport but beach volleyball is.”

This was Des Lynam’s take when addressing the British nation on the BBC 25 years ago. It hasn’t always helped itself, the ruling that female players must wear bikinis that same year aggravated by the decision to reduce them in size for Sydney in 2012.

That’s changed, thankfully. Women can wear shorts, tank tops, long sleeves, long pants or one-piece bathing suits if they prefer, as long their uniforms match those of their teammate but if the sports’ bona fides were to be ever questioned, let alone exposed, then it was here and now without the usual distractions from the sidelines.

Shiokaze Park was an eerie spot on Tuesday, a scenic expanse of nature usually populated by the city’s residents but now spoiled by the vastness of the Games and the usual, ugly array of temporary buildings, miles of cabling and hundreds of volunteers who signed on to help run a carnival but who find themselves passing time in a morgue.

‘Let’s Get The Party Started’ assaulted the ears as Brazil’s Bruno Schmidt and Evandro Goncalves shuffled out to face their Moroccan opponents and start the afternoon session, the DJ spinning his records between every point and, you would imagine, rethinking the life choices that had brought him to that point.

It was all very nightclub-just-after-the-doors-open.

The pity is that the sport has never been more competitive. Brazil and the USA have won 23 of the 36 medals on offer at the Games to date and yet this is the first time that neither country will be represented at the big one by the reigning world champions. Neither nation even made it onto the podium at the last world championships in 2019.

Russia claimed gold in the men’s event in Hamburg with Canada winning the women’s; Germany are the reigning women’s Olympic champions, and it would be no surprise to see the flags of countries as diverse as Norway or Qatar run up the pole here when the two-week marathon ends on Saturday week.

Schmidt, who won gold on home sand in Rio five years ago, has witnessed the change.

“Everybody has noticed this situation,” he said when appraising this new breed of talent. “They are younger, they are powerful, they are pretty close to indoor (volleyball). And if you try to compare how it is now and how it was before, like 10 years ago, there is a huge difference in the way it is played.”

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